Dave Alvin last visited Spokane in the summer of 2016 on one of his Roots on the Rails tours. The roots-rock legend would gather a bunch of ace musicians, hop on a set of vintage train cars and barrel around the country performing shows both on the tracks and in cities along the way. At the Spokane show, Alvin and friends memorably had to hotfoot it from the Flour Mill basement to the train station, risking missing their "all aboard!" call for the sake of one more tune for a room full of folks who love Alvin's blend of rock, folk, country and blues. Sadly, the economics of Amtrak later made Roots on the Rails a cherished memory rather than an ongoing affair.
"It's strange in this year of COVID-19, of no gigs for musicians," Alvin tells the Inlander from his Southern California home. "I miss playing live. I miss touring. I miss being in the band. But I really miss the trains."
"I'm going to sound a little railroad-cosmic here," he continues with a laugh. "On the long runs, you would get into a transcendental state because you're seeing all these places that you've been to before, St. Louis or Chicago or Oakland, but you're seeing them differently. You're seeing them from a different point of view. And there was a cocoon element. It was just so relaxing. Then you go play music all night."
While those train tours were typically just a few weeks long, Alvin is one of the true road dogs in American music. He tours constantly, as a solo artist and on projects with other musicians. The COVID-forced closure of the music industry marks a serious lifestyle change for the guy who formed his band the Blasters with his brother Phil nearly a half-century ago. "I remember the night in 1980, the Blasters, we borrowed a van, and we lined up gigs in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia, and we went on our first road trip," Alvin says. "It was so exciting. And this is the longest I've been off the road since 1980."
In 2019, the 65-year-old Alvin was on tour for 10 months, and this year started with big plans for the Third Mind, a new jammy collective he formed with singer/songwriter Jesse Sykes and members of Camper Van Beethoven and Counting Crows. That tour was canceled, of course, and now the next thing on his calendar is an outdoor show in Northern California with his friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore next June. Even planning on that seems a little optimistic, Alvin says, but he's hopeful about the vaccine news of recent days.
The forced pause felt welcome in the early days of the pandemic after a hard year on the road, Alvin says, but months later, "if there was a gig tonight, anywhere, I'd go and play it." The pandemic's sprawl has him worried for the future, for venues where artists like him can play, and specifically in smaller cities. "The Rolling Stones and U2 and Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen, they'll have gigs," Alvin says. "For artists like me, my guess is there will always be a venue in places like Chicago and New York City. But I don't know about everywhere else. And it's those 'everywhere else' shows that make it financially feasible to do New York ... That's kind of my main concern: Can the actual clubs and promoters make it through this period?"
Some have suggested doing streaming shows, and Alvin says, "I'm not resistant, but I'm hesitant," both because of the cost involved in putting on a good show, and because an online show can't deliver the connection between audience and performer that he craves, a connection he believes is more important for roots musicians than those working in the mainstream. "Roots music shouldn't be oddball music, but it kind of is," Alvin says. "Any traditional American music was outsider music to begin with, whether it was blues, or bluegrass, or the regional music that existed for communities outside the mainstream." There are occasional bursts in popularity for an O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack or a blues artist, he adds, but "in general, this is music for a wide variety of people, but it's limited in scope just because you don't hear it on the radio. And this community of fans, you feed off them [with the live shows], and they feed off you, and then you all get enough to get up the next day. You get a reason to get out of bed the next morning."
For fans, Alvin's new album From an Old Guitar: Rare and Unreleased Recordings offers a pretty good reason to wake up and turn up the stereo. The 16-song collection is a vibrant, blues-leaning mix of covers and originals that Alvin recorded during one-off sessions between tours over the past couple decades. He recorded Mickey Newbury's "Mobile Blue" back in 2000, and the newest recording is Bill Morrissey's stirring "Inside" from 2016. "Peace" is a Willie Dixon blues tune Alvin first performed in the Blasters days, and Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" gives Alvin a chance to scorch some of his trademark guitar sounds on a tune by one of his favorite songwriters and occasional on-stage collaborator. In whole, the collection of old tunes, covers of his contemporaries like Peter Case ("On the Way Downtown") and Chris Smither ("Link of Chain") and his own songs hangs together remarkably well.
"Sequencing it was a bit of a challenge," Alvin says. "Transitioning from a thing like the Willie Dixon song 'Peace,' a slightly abstract Chicago blues, then going into a Mojave Desert song by Marty Robbins... sometimes those eclectic juxtapositions can be jarring, and yet pleasant." Alvin's guitar and his deep rumble of a voice make everything on From an Old Guitar feel distinctly his, and Alvin considers some of it among the best work he's ever done. It's easy for an artist to say that about an album of new material, but gathering shards of magic recorded in fits and starts with a rotating cast of other musicians gives Alvin a unique perspective on the 16 songs that made the cut. He's particularly fond of the instrumental "Variations on Earl Hooker's Guitar Rhumba," because it captured his band at a particularly strong moment in time.
Alvin attributes the success of the recordings to the fact they were done "with no pressure. They were just done for fun." "I try to keep pressure out of situations when I'm trying to be creative," Alvin says. "Back in the day when I was in the Blasters and we were signed to Warner Brothers, that was a lot of pressure. And when I was in a band called X, and they were signed to Elektra, there was a lot of pressure on them. And my first solo album was on Epic Records, and there was a ton of pressure on me. And so after all that, my goal as a creative artist, if I am that, is to have the least amount of pressure possible. Because I don't work really well under pressure.
"I felt relaxed, and when I feel relaxed, I do my best work."